Does the Mars rover get lonely?

Adrian Bridgwater examines the role of data management in exploring the Red Planet.     

We are still waiting to find out whether there really could be life on Mars (although recent discoveries of organic compounds have got scientists really excited), but thanks to the missions that have already reached the surface, we do know a tremendous amount about the red planet today. There have been a total of seven ‘rovers’ sent to Mars, with the USA’s Curiosity being the most recent and still operational in 2018.

The UAE will soon join the list of nations who have staged Mars exploration missions when the Emirates Mars Mission leaves Earth in 2020 to launch the Mars Hope probe into orbit around the red planet. The unmanned probe will be launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in time to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Emirates’ formation and will search for unique data on Mars’ atmosphere.

Marvin the Martian

That atmosphere tells us that some four billion years ago, Mars likely used to enjoy an atmosphere and running water – two things no longer found on the planet. So far our explorations have found a mix of water and carbon dioxide ice at the poles, mud cracks that suggest the presence of groundwater, but so far no actual Martians. So keen are we to find the presence of alien life that NASA has even used a well-known American cartoon Martian on its rocket livery. Today the search goes on.

As we now gather more information about Mars, we are starting to create a lot of data. One of the men and women tasked with looking after the Curiosity rover’s data banks is Tom Stein, operations manager and senior IT lead at NASA’s Planetary Data Systems Geosciences Node.

Millions of people across the globe have seen images and video captured by the car-sized rover across its four-year trek and hundreds of people head to NASA’s online websites on a daily basis to further explore the data collected by the rover. NASA used the Telerik Ultimate Suite from software company Progress to build what it calls The Analyst’s Notebook, a web application that gives users the ability to replay missions day-by-day in great detail.

Perfect at blast off

“Think about the fact that more than half the missions to Mars have failed. This means that we can learn a lot from the data that we have been able to capture.

If you think about it, you are sending a mobile laboratory 500 million kilometers away from Earth so everything has to be working perfectly when you blast off, there is no opportunity to make a service call,” said Stein, speaking this year in Boston.

Stein explains that rover missions are nondeterministic and extremely dynamic. The team makes decisions every day that affect what the rover’s next actions are going to be. “A collective decision is made by a group of scientists get together to decide what to do, but on any given day it’s hard for all these people to remember what the rationale was for decisions they had made previously,” said Stein.

It’s not often appreciated, but missions such as NASA’s Curiosity Rover and MBRSC’s Hope probe generate huge amounts of data. Sorting the data, managing workflow and sharing in among different academic institutions is a huge task – but these multi-million dollar missions would be worthless without the valuable science data they bring us.

It’s tough to interview Stein and not ask him whether he watched the 2015 film The Martian and ask him what he thought of it. It turns out he has seen it and he thinks it’s pretty realistically presented in terms of the landscape and what it might be like to walk on the surface of the planet.

With the UAE now adding to Mars exploration with its mission to further explore Mars’ climate, we’re sure to find more out about life on Mars very soon – and get the chance to work with the data these missions are generating.